A conversation with Angela Flournoy
by Vivian Phillips
The Turner family could be my own or any number of families that surrounded my family during my early years growing up in Seattle. Families with similar backgrounds, mostly Arkansas roots, gathered together in homes throughout the Central Area of Seattle. The familiar was an important element of making a new life after migrating from the South. Stories, food, traditions, introductions to newly arrived family members, and notes on where you were and were not welcome were all a large part of the developing culture of African Americans in the North.
The Turner family roots are linked to Little Rock and Pine Bluff, Arkansas, just as my own family—and on my mother's side, three of her brothers—moved to Detroit seeking a middle class life in the auto industry. Summer visits to Detroit were frequent and memorable. Even though many of our parents, aunts, and uncles have passed on, still today, conversations with friends and relatives in Seattle with Detroit roots harken back to our memories of 8 Mile Road, Gratiot Avenue, Motown, and fun at Belle Isle.
Angela Flournoy's beautifully written The Turner House is an invitation for readers to explore another American story, solidly formed from the Great Migration, and representative of the stories many African Americans know well today, as changing demographics drastically impact the piece of the American Dream that inspired their ancestors' courage: property ownership.
Thirteen Turner siblings tangle with their past to gain a solid grip on their future, with twists and turns on hopeful roads with intersections of reality, and constant changes in values, of both property and hearts.
Following is an excerpt from my recent conversation with Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House, the 2017 Seattle Reads selection:
Vivian Phillips: What was the impetus for you to write this story?
Angela Flournoy: My father is from Detroit and I visited there all my life. I never read fiction that depicted the experiences of people like my family: working class African Americans, particularly in a place where they made up the majority of the city. I wanted to explore those experiences in fiction.
The Turner House is so much more than a house. It serves more as a vessel for hopes, dreams, disappointments, and haunted memories. Can you expand on this?
It's the way I envisioned the book. Before I thought about the characters, I thought about the houses that my father lived in. The family house is often the point of reunions and tensions about the future. What will the future of the house be and where do sibling's loyalties lie?
Your writing style reminds me of J. California Cooper, who said that the people came to her with their stories to tell. How did you develop the Turner characters?
One of the things that happens for me is I create questions for myself and the answers are where the fiction comes in. Who might want to live in that house? First it was [youngest Turner sibling] Lelah. What is she hiding from the other characters and what questions are they answering for her?
There are many themes present that explore ego, pride, and denial. How do you think that has played and continues to be a part of African American culture, particularly when there is one foot in history rooted in the South, and another foot headed toward progress and hope?
There is a reason for African Americans to feel a lot of pride. Detroiters faced a lot of obstacles related to home ownership, which was a cornerstone of the American dream, but they achieved it nonetheless. The differences between rural living and urban living offered a reason for pride and shame, which manifested in different ways. It's important for African Americans to find sources of pride as society turns away from valuing us.
What are you getting at by inclusion of the mental health element that the oldest Turner son Cha-Cha experiences by seeing a therapist? Often in the African American community, talking about "family business" outside of the family is taboo.
Consciously, I really thought that Cha-Cha would enter into new territory for himself and for his family. There are benefits of talking to someone, but people in the book don't understand why he's doing what he is doing. It was important for me to show that it's not as simple as "Black people just don't believe in mental health." There is also a financial threshold for getting help. This is why so many characters in the book are concerned with why Cha-Cha is spending the money on talking to someone. The costs of these services matter.
Would you agree that The Turner House helps us apply some historical and emotional knowledge to our navigation through this era of post migration, gentrification, technology, leadership, family, and relationships?
I wrote it trying to work out some of those feelings for myself. I drove to Detroit after grad school to see my family and no one was living in my grandma's house. There were safety issues, the City let the lights remain off in certain areas, and there were no services. I wondered, how did this happen? I was exploring what it feels like to know things are changing and shifting.
What are you currently reading?
I'm reading a book that is hopefully in the library but may be out of print, Train Whistle Guitar by Albert Murray, set in Gasoline Point, Alabama.
Note: The Seattle Public Library has confirmed that Train Whistle Guitar is out of print. Other books by Albert Murray are available in our collection.
What are you currently writing?
I'm working on my next novel that charts the changes in a group of Black women into their 50s.